Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Confidence Men, Scams, and Spiritualists

I just cannot get enough of grifters. Here is an article I've assembled that takes David Maurer's The Big Con as its start point, and brings together a variety of related material on confidence men and scams of one sort or another, all in one handy spot.

The Big Con
The Big Con by David Maurer was first published in the 1940s, and is a history of the personalities, the rackets, and the argot, that made up the world of the confidence men.
This is a place where ropers find marks to trim, and where a con can end by giving someone the cackle-bladder as a blow off. (The cackle-bladder is a chicken's bladder filled with blood and hidden in the mouth. It can be used to help deliver a convincing spurt of blood during the staging of a fake death that ends a swindle and leaves the sucker believing they witnessed a real murder. The sucker's complicity ensures that they will be in no hurry to return to the city anytime soon or take their beef to the cops.)

David Mamet uses the cackle-bladder in his 1987 movie, House of Games - This film is notable for having one of the best plots of this type of film, where Lindsay Crause plays a successful but bored psychiatrist who finds herself drawn into the fascinating world of the confidence men, who use their razor-sharp knowledge of human nature for criminal purposes. The film features a cameo by Ricky Jay, one of the world's greatest magicians and a superb exponent of cardplay.
There are some excellent articles (particularly the New Yorker, Secrets of the Magus) in the archive on Ricky Jay's website.

Another Mamet movie featuring confidence men is The Spanish Prisoner, named after a very famous con that originated in the 16th Century (and is still going strong today, most notably in the form of the Nigerian Money Transfer Scam that we all know so well. There is also an internet movement known as scam baiting, see image below) . This movie features Steve Martin in a straight role and it has its moments. Confidence men of a different stripe feature in Mamet's excellent expletive-laden 1992 film Glengarry Glenn Ross, where Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Alec Baldwin (in an unforgettable cameo), play unscrupulous salesmen/conmen, fighting for their futures. At a tangent, but still relevant, as it has the performance of an enormous con as its centrepiece, Kevin Spacey was brilliant as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, (1995) More recently, and less successfully, there is a grifter element to the 2004 James Spader movie, Shadow of Fear , while Nicholas Cage plays a flim-flam man in Matchstick Men (2003), which is a 5/10 movie with a few good moments.

Image taken from 419 Eater trophy room, click on images there for large versions. Yes, it's juvenile, but it's also very funny.

Maurer's book makes an ideal accompaniment to Jack Black's terrific biography, You Can't Win.
He provides a thorough discussion of the historical roots and development of the cons, from their origins in the streets and the circus to the opening of the first big stores, where the theatrical aspect was given full rein, and conmen would contrive to fool their suckers into believing they were in a genuine bookmakers, Western Union office, or brokerage, with a cast of criminals playing the various roles. There is full discussion of how the cons worked, how a victim, or mark, was found and swindled, and then gotten rid of. But most of all, Maurer's book is a celebration of the personalities and the unique language of the confidence men, these aristocrats of the underworld. As such, the book has held a fascination for writers, with devotees including the already mentioned David Mamet, along with Jim Thompson (who wrote the book The Grifters, that was made into the 1990 movie of the same name, where Anjelica Huston played Lilly Dillon, based on the real-life Dillon, who was one of the few female grifters), James Ellroy, and William Burroughs, who similarly documented the lifestyles and the argot of Times Square hustlers and heroin addicts in his debut novel, Junky (the same milieu that Kinsey also took a keen interest in for his research into sexual behaviour).

Maurer's book was also source material for classic 1973 movie, The Sting starring Paul Newman.

Finally, as a side note to confidence men, here's some material on another breed of con artists, the Spiritualists. There are a host of entertaining debunkings of spiritualists tricks in Part Two of The Lock and Key Library, an early 20th century collection of writings on real-life detectives and modern magic. You can read it here for free at Project Gutenberg (the most relevant section is located in the final section, starting with David Abbot's contribution).

Spirit Photography

Likewise, the great escapologist and illusionist, Harry Houdini, wrote a fascinating book, The Miracle Mongers, where he comments on the techniques, training, and trickery employed by strong men, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, etc, my favourite being named The Incombustible Spaniard, and documents numerous performers and some serious mishaps. You can read it here for free at the Gutenberg Project.

A commenter pointed towards this exhibition in New York, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (a rather dire play on words in the title) - the website has some sample pictures and a spot of expounding.

That concludes my brief survey. Any more good material, please leave a comment.


Blogger Jim said...

I looked at the picture of Phill Mycra-Ckin for the longest time before getting the joke. Was it worth it? Not sure ... ;)

10:27 AM  
Blogger L said...

I caught a fantastic exhibit on spirit/occult photography in NYC not too long ago -- cool stuff

10:18 PM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

thank you, L. the exhibition was perhaps, from doing a check, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. i have added a link, it ends on 31st december 2005. there are some pictures on the website.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Miss Smartee Pants said...

Ahhh . . . praise for Ricky Jay is always welcome. If you should get a chance, you'd rather like the 'New Yorker' profile written about him some years back. I think it appears in a recent collection of New Yorker pieces.

Great blog!

2:18 PM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

i've read the New Yorker profile. i mention it in the post, there's an archived copy on Ricky Jay's site. thanks for stopping by.

2:35 PM  

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